12/03/2015

By Daniel Foster, co-founder and technical director 34SP.com


Working remotely can have massive benefits for employers and employees alike. For the employee, working virtually can allow for a much better work/life balance as available time is optimised and not wasted commuting to and from work; for the employer, working remotely is cost effective and allows access to an increased pool of qualified employees, since location is not an issue.

Despite adapting well a geographical shift in working practices, we have learnt first-hand that remote working creates challenges that require considerable navigation.

With technological advancements transforming the way in which we communicate in the workplace; business are having to adapt quickly. More and more organisations are adopting remote ways of working and, as a result, senior managers are having to rethink the ways in which they manage their workforces.

This is something which resonates with us at 34SP.com – our business has clients all over the world, data centres in both Manchester in London, and a US based team. When we were faced with integrating our US-based staff into our existing UK business model, it wasn’t all plain sailing and required something of a change of approach. More specifically, we found it necessary to make greater use of certain online tools to improve our lines of communication and productivity. And we had to update our working practices and business processes to ensure the quality of service we offered to clients didn’t slip.

To help other businesses transition to remote working as seamlessly as possible, here are 10 top tips for effectively managing a geographically dispersed team.

1. Hire the right people

It is worth noting that remote working is not for everyone. It is particularly well suited to self-motivated workers who are capable of performing to a high standard with minimal supervision. It also demands skilled managers who are able to build and maintain strong working relationships with colleagues that are dispersed geographically and come from different cultural backgrounds.

2. Organise a work plan

In my experience, it is really important to prepare a daily or weekly written plan, outlining exactly what is expected of each member of the team. This way everyone knows what work they can be expecting which helps to keep the entire team on the same page, and ensures deadlines are met.

3. Schedule specific working hours and create structure

Time differences mean that it is often not possible for your transatlantic colleagues to be available at the exact times that you are. However, it is still important to define clear times that remote workers are expected to be available as this makes the process more fluid.

4. Set clear goals and expectations

In my experience, new employees gain insight into the role by observing their colleagues and learn a lot by picking up on subtle hints during face-to-face interaction with managers and co-workers.

However, with a remote work force these insights aren’t available and, for this reason, it is crucial to set out clear goals and expectations from the very beginning. With remote working extra care must be given to ensure even the tiniest detail hasn’t been overlooked to help avoid any miscommunication.

5. Establish a clear communication routine

To reconcile for not always being able to see our colleagues face-to-face, we have put in place a number of new modes of communication. These techniques are a mix of both formal and informal, and work to maximise synergy between the teams.

Mixing up communication is essential too, as although an email might be more efficient, picking up the phone is a much more personal way to interact with a colleague. A key way to build trust is to always try to be available; it is important that the team feel they can reach key contacts at all times. I'd advise never to let calls go to voicemail if possible, and if they do, try and reply as soon as possible. Remember that when communicating via email things can sometimes get lost in translation, so always be cautious of using culturally-dependant phrases, jokes or sarcasm.

6. Don’t overlook the importance of face-to-face interaction

There is no substitute for meeting face-to-face and so meetings where all the team are together - which often only happen once every few months with transatlantic teams - should be used to their full potential. Have an agenda prepared beforehand and ensure all the team, have access to it in advance of the meeting so it runs as smoothly as possible.

7. Stay well-informed about your team

It is important that your global colleagues feel like you are in touch with what goes on in their lives. Don't overlook the importance of being aware of what is going on where they are based, such as extreme weather or a big news story that has broken - these are all things that good managers should be aware of and take into consideration.

8. Be flexible

Adopting a flexible way of working is arguably the most crucial element needed to run a successful operation across different time zones. In more practical terms, this often equates to some team members working slightly earlier or later on certain days, to ensure tasks which require the input of a number of different people get completed.

9. Be aware of the team's expectations.

Since there is little opportunity to catch up with your team face-to-face, it is important for managers to check in periodically with their employees to see how they are doing and if they are on track in terms of achieving their goals. It's also important to ensure remote workers and being given access to the same training and development opportunities they would be if they were based in the head office.

10. Build trust

One of the most important ingredients needed to build a strong remote team is trust. As a manager, you should trust in the ability of your workforce and give fair and frequent feedback whenever possible. In turn, your remote team will trust and value your feedback and have the necessary skills and confidence to complete their tasks with little supervision.

And finally, when working with a remote workforce it is important to connect with your colleagues on a personal level and see them as individuals with their own lives - not just someone at the other end of an email stream.

I'm positive that businesses that take note of all, or at least some, of these tips, can make remote working a help and not a hindrance to their workforce.